Recent Commonplace Entries


“We are talking about the history of the Jewish people, from the exodus from Egypt to the terrible tragedy of the Holocaust. Refugeedom is in our DNA. Seeking asylum is in our blood.” (Rabbi Nava Hefetz  of Miklat Israel, quoted in NYT report, February 3)

“According to one account of the proceedings [of a 1975 conference to discuss Stalinism], the conferees not only failed to reach any consensus about how to define Stalinism; they couldn’t even agree whether they should try to define it. About the only thing they could agree on was that, as one wag quipped, ‘it didn’t develop out of Buddhism’.” (Lewis H. Siegelbaum, in TLS, January 19)

“In February 2012, as Greece was negotiating its second bailout loan, I interviewed a retired commander of the Hellenic Air Force whose pension austerity policies had cut by half. He was incensed that Greece’s European partners saw their loans to the country in uncompromisingly financial terms. ‘Don’t they remember Marathon? Don’t they remember Salamis? Shouldn’t Greece receive some consideration for defending Europe from the Persians?’ he asked.” (John Psaropoulos in TLS, February 9)

“In a word, we are all members of our cultural milieu. So soon as the orientation of our interest plays any role whatsoever in a matter, the milieu, the cultural complex, the Zeitgeist, or whatever one wishes to call it, must exert its influence. In all areas of a culture there will exist common features deriving from the world view and, much more numerous still, common stylistic features – in politics, in art, in science.” (Erwin Schrodinger, from Ist die Naturwissenschaft milieubedingt?, quoted by Phillip Blom in Fracture: Life and Culture in the West 1918-1938, p 125)

#MeToo in 1928                                                                                                     “Not for her the polite reticence of a young lady who waits to be spoken to. Seeing a man she finds interesting, it is she who pursues him, and it is she who slaps him when he makes an advance – not because it is unwelcome but because otherwise it would simply be too easy for him.” (Philipp Blom on Clara Bow, from Fracture: Life and Culture in the West 1918-1938, p 220)

“Scholarship is seldom at its best when done by a committee, or even in collaboration, and historians above all are suspicious of coauthorship or of research assistants.” (Robin W. Winks, in Cloak & Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961, p 69)

“Nothing . . . is more irritating than the practice of hiding the notes at the back of the book so as not to distract the attention of readers of delicate concentration. Nothing is better reading (except a good index) than footnotes.” (Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis, quoted by Robin W. Winks in Cloak & Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961, p 98)

[‘And nothing is more infuriating than copious endnotes that do not contain relevant page or chapter numbers at the head of all pages.’ Coldspur]

“We had been at war with Germany longer than any other power, we had suffered more, we had sacrificed more, and in the end we would lose more than any other power. Yet here were these God-awful American academics rushing about, talking about the Four Freedoms and the Atlantic Charter, and criticizing us for doing successfully what they would try and fail to do themselves later – restrain the Russians. Donovan was very lucky we didn’t send a Guards Company to OSS Cairo.” (Colonel Sir Ronald Wingate, in interview with Anthony Cave Brown, quoted in Last Hero, p 609, and cited by Robin W. Winks in Cloak & Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961, p 214)

“Intercepted communications, if used by safe hands, might well permit the evaluation of the effectiveness of double agents, since such intercepts would represent a superior source unbeknownst to the double agent. Thus one must at all costs conceal the knowledge that one was intercepting communications, and the person for whom this was the primary goal would always counsel against taking action on anything learned from those intercepts. Yet the point of the intercepts for those not in counterintelligence was to be able to take action against the enemy. Therefore some higher authority, neither in counterintelligence nor in operations, must establish and judge the priorities.” (Robin W. Winks, in Cloak & Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961, p 344)

“Angleton both tests and proves Sherman Kent’s dictum: while much can be learned that is presumed to be irretrievable, one cannot learn enough to tell in the end precisely how interesting, how significant, how true what one does know may be.” (Robin W. Winks, in Cloak & Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961, p 410)

“The historian must have a mulish obstinacy, a refusal to be gulled; he must be incredulous of his evidence or he will trip over the deliberately falsified”. (Sherman Kent in Writing History, p 7, quoted by Robin W. Winks, in Cloak & Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961, p 453)

“‘The historian does not know what he has decided until he writes it’. The act of writing is an essential part, then, of the process of research, of evaluation, of deciding about the significance and truth of any inquiry. It is writing – finding the words to express the assessed as well as the felt meanings – that brings research to its point. This writing cannot be solely for itself, or private, for the search for language to express meaning and conclusion must be deep enough to convey that meaning to a diverse audience, it simply those who share a jargon, since only if those who do not understand what is being said can be reached, through language, to finally understand what is said, has one achieved any understanding of the meaning of one’s conclusions. If one writes only for those who understand through a code language, the search for meaning is forestalled, for the language itself will force meaning upon the conclusions. As a former director of Research and Analysis for counterintelligence remarked, ‘  . . . avoid the small-minded linguistic expert. But language must go to the insights.’ To write is to know.” (Robin W. Winks, in Cloak & Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961, p 465)

“Historians cannot, by definition, be propagandists.” (Robin W. Winks, in Cloak & Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961, p 468)

“The author [Mario Vargas Llosa] seems to agree with Eve Babitz, who wrote that having affairs is the only creative thing most people will ever do.” (Dwight Garner, in NYT, February 20)

‘When I wrote a book on progress in medicine a distinguished Harvard professor wrote that I shouldn’t be earning living as a historian because I had broken a fundamental professional taboo. So the theme of progress has been left to psychologists, economists and others who have been forced to do the historians’ job for them.” (David Wootton, in review of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now in TLS, February 16)

“When they were having coffee Giles explained, ‘Peter’s started to write a book about his time in MI5. It will contain some quite secret information so he’ll be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act.’

“In that case, why let him write it?’

‘Because, if we prosecute him, people will think that the information is true, especially the Reds.’

‘Well, isn’t it?’

‘No, the important stuff is a complete fabrication’.” (from A. Machin-Taylor’s A Russian Rendezvous, pp 77-78)

“Neanderthals have disappeared. So have Fuegian Indians. So have Greenland Vikings. Population extinction has been a part of human history forever.” (Dr. João Zilhão, of University of Barcelona, quoted in NYT, February 27)

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